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Lessons from the Stimulus Fight

Republicans have more clout than they had imagined.

12:00 PM, Feb 2, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
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What did we learn from the last week's unanimous rejection of the Democratic stimulus package by House Republicans? We learned President Obama, who ardently wooed Republicans, is more charming than he is persuasive. We learned Republicans, though they can't win a vote, can win an argument. We learned the stimulus bill is too big, too porky, and hardly stimulative at all. And we learned Nancy Pelosi, the aggressively partisan House speaker, is by her own admission really and truly "non-partisan."

That's a lot of learning from one event at the outset of a new administration. But the stimulus--or "stimulus"--is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the Obama era, if not the most important of all. So the manner in which it progresses through Washington matters.

Let's start with Obama. He has just about everything going for him: popularity, political clout, large majorities in the House and Senate, an adoring press. But since he promised to pursue bipartisanship and thus change the way Washington works, he is eager to gain at least a modicum of Republican support for whatever he proposes, starting with the stimulus.

So he visited congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill and invited them to the White House, all the while talking up the $819 billion Democratic stimulus bill in the House. The Republicans found him quite impressive and also gracious and likeable. But not one of them--not even a mushy moderate or two--voted for the bill in the House.

Why? They simply hated the bill more than they feared voting against a popular new president. The measure had tax cuts, but not ones Republicans believe will spur the economy. It had plenty of spending, but too much and not the kind that would affect the economy quickly. Plus, the more Republicans examined the 647-page bill, the more unnecessary, non-emergency spending items they found.

Rather than attracting House Republicans, the bill united them in opposition--by itself, a remarkable development. Republicans had no vested interest in the bill because they'd had no role in drafting it. Bipartisanship on the part of House Democrats led by Pelosi was non-existent.

When the Obama era began last month, Republicans figured they'd have practically no influence to speak of. They were wrong. The case they made against the stimulus--that it was bloated with too many special interest goodies and too little actual stimulus--got surprisingly favorable coverage by the media. They not only got the better of Democrats in debating the bill, they also created a dilemma for Obama.

If he wants Republican backing when the bill is taken up in the Senate this week, he'll have to force Democrats to accept a few Republican ideas. That may displease Democrats and the liberal groups who constitute his base. But Obama can't have it both ways. He can't be a president who achieves bipartisanship--a uniter, not a divider--at the same time he capitulates to Democrats on Capitol Hill who refuse to compromise with Republicans in any significant way.

Obama has another problem as well. Democrats have insisted on the use of American steel, iron, and manufactured goods in projects funded in the stimulus bill. Canada, the Europe Union, and other countries have called this unlawful protectionism and threatened retaliation. A trade war would be likely to worsen the economic downturn. So now it's up to Obama to solve that problem.

Pelosi seemed oblivious to the president's situation. She claimed to have considered Republican proposals for the stimulus before rejecting every one of them. That constituted bipartisanship in her view. After Democrats won a bigger majority last fall, Pelosi said they'd be more bipartisan than ever. Now she's she neither partisan nor bipartisan. Nope, she's non-partisan, determined only to do what the American people want. Sure she is.

Obama's trouble may prove fleeting if he intervenes to assure Republicans a small stake in the stimulus and to expunge the protectionist provisions. Still, he should keep in mind the adage that 90 percent of politics is first impressions. And a first impression of him as president is precisely what Americans are forming right now.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.